2. Sofia Brown; age 5, looks on as her mother Sandra Brown fills out her ballot at the West Asheville Public Library on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 15. The library experienced a steady flow of voters. Coby Rabon / Wmforo

The NC Board of Elections narrowly voted Friday to allow an upgraded version of a previously approved voting system to be used in 2020 elections, following the recent revelation that the system’s manufacturer does not have an adequate supply of the version it encouraged the state to approve and test earlier this year.

But the 3-2 decision did not come without criticism aimed at the company, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, by a bipartisan mix of board members, including from those voted both for and against allowing the Electronic Voting System as a replacement for EVS without requiring additional testing.

“I’m disappointed,” said Board of Elections Chairman Damon Circosta, a Democrat who voted with the board’s two Republican members to allow the upgraded systems.

“I’m disappointed with ES&S, who in their zeal to sell their product have lacked candor, and not been forthcoming with this agency.”

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Republican board member Kenneth Raymond expressed similar concerns.

“During the certification process, many individuals expressed their concerns to this board about working with ES&S as a vendor, and the vendor is fully aware of that,” Raymond said.

“But unfortunately, rather than take action that would mitigate those concerns, their behavior and events of the last month or so (has) only increased them.”

Raymond called for election vendors to demonstrate greater concern about their perception in the eyes of “the people of North Carolina” and the “confidence of the Board of Elections.”

Stella Anderson, one of two Democratic members of the board who opposed allowing the upgraded system, not only voiced related criticisms, but also questioned the thinking of her fellow board members who, however reluctantly, voted to approve the upgraded systems.

“By falling in line with (ES&S’s) desire to have quick and easy approval of, we’ve just demonstrated and kind of lent credence to (the idea that) they get to behave and communicate with the state board however they see fit in their best interest,” she said. “And that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Democratic board member Jeff Carmon, who also voted against allowing the upgraded system without testing, complained that ES&S’s timing in coming clean about their equipment shortage had put the board in a bad position.

“This particular vendor has pushed our back up against the wall,” Carmon said. “We were under the impression that they had enough equipment for us.”

Although NC Board of Elections staff characterized the upgrade as a minor modification that could be handled administratively, Anderson expressed skepticism that they could have any certainty that this was true, since staff members were relying primarily on the claims of ES&S without further verification.

“As an agency, we have to get into a place where we don’t have to take the vendor’s word for it,” Anderson said.

“We’ve had a number of things that have been presented one way. And we go back and we look at (federal Election Assistance Commission) documents and reports, and that is, in fact, not the way that things are characterized or determined by the EAC.”

Contrary to the presentations from elections staff based on ES&S’s claims, Anderson concluded that the upgrades to the system were substantial and should not have been approved for use in the 2020 primary elections without additional testing.

“ES&S’s initial request to us framed these changes … as enhancements,” Anderson said. “They asked that for a specific reason, it seems – an easier, faster path to getting approved. These are not enhancements; they are significant modifications.”

False choice?

Anderson also suggested the supposed dilemma facing the board was in fact a “false choice.”

She noted that the board could have refused to approve EVS for use in the 2020 primary elections and asked the counties that wanted to use these touch-screen systems to go instead with hand-marked paper ballots.

While potentially inconvenient for some of the large counties in question, including Mecklenburg, Anderson suggested hand-marked ballots might be easier to implement anyway than a new system shipped from a vendor in time for early primary voting in February.

She suggested that Wake County’s election director, Gary Sims, had the expertise to advise any other counties on such a switch and “walk them through what they need to do.”

“Our back is not up against the wall,” Anderson said. “We need to stop letting a vendor put us in a situation where we circumvent normal processes in the certification of voting systems.”

Review of entire voting system certification process

While board members disagreed about the best course of action, they showed little disagreement on the conclusion that ES&S had acted improperly.

In light of the situation, Circosta called on elections staff to conduct “a full review of our certification process.”

“Separately, I’m also asking that they move to improve our security procedures, such as logic and accuracy testing and to implement advanced audit procedures so that all of can be sure that your vote counts,” Circosta said.

“While North Carolina has been testing voting equipment and auditing results for many years, we can make those processes even stronger, and we will.”

Circosta said he and Anderson had discussed these changes in advance and he looked forward to working with her and other board members to implement the new measures.

Big year ahead

In closing Friday’s meeting, Circosta asked the board to look ahead to the 2020 election year, which is in part already underway with candidate filing across the state.

“Folks, we are days away from 2020,” Circosta said. “It is going to be an unprecedented year in the administration of elections.

“Due to gerrymandering litigation, this agency only received district lines this month. Candidate filing closes (Dec. 20). Additionally, we have been directed by the legislature to implement a photo identification process that is going to be a big change, and it will place a tremendous burden on poll workers across the state. Also, our primary election calendar has been moved up so that we can be a Super Tuesday state.

“All this and our agency recently received a budget cut. So, there’s work to be done. But I have confidence in leadership of all 100 counties and their partners here at the state board, and we will get that work done.”

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